x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Davis Cup title defence huge step up for Radek Stepanek

Even the likes of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic would envy the Czech tennis player’s Davis Cup accomplishments, writes Ahmed Rizvi.

Radek Stepanek became only the third player to win two Davis Cup final live fifth singles rubbers. Stoyan Nenov / Reuters
Radek Stepanek became only the third player to win two Davis Cup final live fifth singles rubbers. Stoyan Nenov / Reuters

Who was the last man from the Czech Republic to win a grand slam singles title?

For the answer, you have to go back to Petr Korda at the 1998 Australian Open. And to find the last man from there to top the ATP rankings, we have to go even further back — to Ivan Lendl, in 1989, when the Czech Republic and Slovakia were still one nation.

After his Australian Open triumph, Korda climbed to world No 2 in 1998 and no Czech has made it as high as the top four since.

Yet, on Sunday, the Czech Republic became only the fifth nation — joining Spain, Sweden, Germany and the United States — to successfully defend the Davis Cup since the inception of the World Group in 1981.

The hero of their 3-2 triumph in Belgrade, over a host boasting six-time grand slam champion and world No 2 Novak Djokovic, was a world No 44, who turns 35 on November 27: Radek Stepanek.

The veteran defeated 23-year-old Serb Dusan Lajovic 6-3, 6-1, 6-1 in the deciding singles rubber to break the hearts of more than 15,000 home fans.

He had won the deciding fifth rubber in last year’s final against Spain as well, defeating Nicolas Almagro for the Czech Republic’s first Davis Cup triumph.

The victories over Lajovic and Almagro make Stepanek only the third player in history to win two Davis Cup final live fifth singles rubbers. And he is the first man to do so on consecutive occasions.

Only France’s Henri Cochet (1927, 1929, 1931) and Britain’s Fred Perry (1933, 1936) have won two Davis Cup final live fifth singles rubbers before, so you cannot really blame Stepanek for feeling on top of the world.

“That’s a beautiful stat, what can I say,” said Stepanek. “I’m indescribably happy. This is the highest [moment of my career]. To win Davis Cup is so far my biggest achievement.

“It’s very difficult to find the right words for the emotions I’m going through right now. For our country, waiting 32 years for a second title, now we are one of the five countries who have been able to defend a title. We made history today.”

The Czech Republic did make history, but they also proved to the world you do not need just A-listers to win the Davis Cup.

For all his domination of the ATP Tour, Roger Federer could not take Switzerland to a single Davis Cup final because of a lack of depth in the squad.

The same could be said about Serbia in this year’s final. Djokovic did win both his matches, but the hosts lost the other three.

Lendl is considered one of the greatest players to come out of the Czech Republic, winning eight grand slam titles, but he could win only one Davis Cup (for Czechoslovakia) — in 1980 — because he had Tomas Smid supporting him.

Stepanek and his more well-known teammate Tomas Berdych, the world No 7, are certainly not among tennis’ elite names, and have far from flattering grand slam records.

In 43 appearances at tennis’ four majors, Stepanek has reached the quarter-finals just once. Berdych has made one final, and two semi-finals, in 41 grand slam appearances. This year, he has not won a single tournament.

But as a team, the two boast a fantastic Davis Cup record. As a doubles pair, they have won 14 of their 15 rubbers, including the one in Belgrade on Saturday, which proved crucial.

Overall, Berdych has a 45-13 win-loss record in Davis Cup matches, including singles and doubles, and that is better than Federer’s 43-15. Djokovic is 28-9, Rafael Nadal 24-5 and Andy Murray 19-6.

Stepanek is 30-15 in all Davis Cup matches, but more importantly, he has delivered when it matters most: in the tense, deciding fifth rubber.

A quirky character, he draws strength from his lion-emblazoned Czech shirt, which has been a source of ridicule from some commentators and fans.

“That shirt brought me luck and is giving me kind of my inside power because I always want to fight like a lion and it’s a Czech symbol so it means a lot to me,” said Stepanek.

“I love to play Davis Cup from the first moment; it’s a very unique competition with so much history. The inspiration came when I was a kid. I saw the TV from 1980 when the [Czech] team won it for the first time.

“These pictures I had in my head my whole life and now we’re sitting here and we achieved even more than them — we defended the title.”

“We became legends today.”

And who can argue with that.